Henig, Conner Shine In Saturday Scrimmage

Coach Sylvester Croom is always sparing with any post-practice praise, particularly when it comes to how the Bulldogs are working on the offensive side of the line. So, while the Mississippi State coach still wasn't gushing with compliments, his positive comments about Saturday's scrimmage had to sound sweet to the offense.

"We got better," Croom said at the end of State's second game-situation scrimmage of the spring. "And we're making some plays." On offense, he meant.

Indeed the Bulldogs did make more and better plays at Scott Field. Bucking the two-year trend of total domination by the defensive unit, the first-team offense gave a respectable account of themselves. It wasn't a brilliant display by any means, and there still was plenty left to critique at the end of the session. Yet for significant stretches the offensive Bulldogs managed to hold their own and even get the football across the goal line.

It was an encouraging afternoon for quarterback Mike Henig. The third-year soph completed 16 of 23 passes thrown, for 173 yards. Four of his throws became touchdowns, and Henig was not intercepted. Not even by the first-team defense, which he had to run the vast majority of his plays against.

"Mike is throwing the ball well," Croom said. The coach has said the same thing frequently this spring, so the scrimmage stats only confirmed progress from Henig.

The first defense didn't exactly roll over for Henig's unit, forcing punts the first two series that started on the far 35-yard line. But on the third chance Henig directed a successful drive, capped when he flipped the ball to split end Tyler Threadgill in the flats. The receiver spun away from cornerback Derek Pegues and got to the pylon for an 11-yard touchdown on his only catch of the day. But the best play in the drive was an acrobatic one-handed grab by Omarr Conner as he was falling on the sideline.

A series later it took only four plays to cover 45 yards with Henig hitting Lance Long on a 22-yard touchdown play. Long had to get the last two yards the hard way, dragging two defenders across the goal line. And before his day was done Henig found Conner for a 17-yard touchdown in red-zone drills. Henig missed a chance for one last score, overthrowing a wide-open Aubrey Bell in the end zone. That series the offense had to settle for a 28-yard field goal. Later Henig found fullback Casey Rogers running free down the middle for another 17-yard touchdown play.

And after that kick the starting defensive group decided enough was enough. Given more freedom to rush and at times blitz the pressure was increased and Henig's efficiency fell off. Croom also noted, "The officials were generous in a couple of things that could have been ‘sacks'." Not that the quarterbacks were ever hit, with the refs whistling plays dead if they figured the passer would have been caught before throwing. "The protection is still not as good as it needs to be," Croom said.

When there was protection, there were results this day. Conner caught six passes for 110 yards and one score, Long had four grabs for 32 yards and a touchdown, and Keon Humphries had three catches for ten yards with a score on a throw fromTray Rutland. The backup quarterback was 4-of-9 for 42 yards with no picks either. He also ran for a 11-yard scramble touchdown.

Croom pointed to the efforts by the wideouts. "Omarr is making catches, Keon is making more plays. The receivers are better, no question. Threadgill is better, Keon is better, and Lance Long. Those guys in particular are making plays."

The pass-catchers had plenty of chances as play-calling tilted towards throwing the ball just as has been the case most of camp. Still there has been more attention on the ground game the past week and both the first and second offenses tried to run. Results were mixed at best. Senior Derek Ambrose had the most productive afternoon with 48 yards on six carries, and he scored on a 15-yard bolt up the middle to complete a 13 play, 65 yard drive.

Brandon Hart shared the first-team work at halfback, though he is best suited for fullback. He netted four yards on 17 rushes, perhaps showing the cumulative effects of taking a lot of hits this camp. Justin Williams ran the ball 13 times for 47 yards, mostly against the second defense.

"Ambrose ran the ball well but today he was the only halfback we had out there," Croom said. "But hey, Ambrose and (Brandon) Thornton are who we've got to beat South Carolina with, then whatever else we get out of our freshmen. Beyond that we really don't have a halfback. Hart gives us some things in short yardage and goal line. Right now that's my biggest worry, in the sense that both guys have something wrong with them. So we've got to keep them healthy in training camp, the only contact they'll get after spring will be when we play South Carolina."

On the whole Croom had reason to express optimism about offensive progress this spring. "But we're still making mistakes and not ‘finishing' good enough, and our protection isn't what we need to give him time. You give Mike time and he'll make plays."

Time was often hard to find when the varsity defense came through breakdowns in protections. Backup DE Avery Hannibal made three ‘sacks' while starting tackle Andrew Powell and Deljuan Robinson had one each. Robinson and Hannibal also had three tackles for losses. WLB Jamar Chaney topped the tackle list with eight, followed by six from safety Jeremie Johnson and four from CB Derek Pegues.

The standard list of injured or rehabilitating players did not participate at all Saturday. On offense, these were Thornton (shoulder), tight end Eric Butler (shoulder), WR Tony Burks (hamstring), and WR Will Prosser (hip). Defensive players sitting out the day were MLB Quinton Culberson (hamstring), MLB Jimmy Miller (hamstring), DE Charles Burns (shoulder), CB David Heard (shoulder), S Demario Bobo (knee), and S Adrian Griffin (arm).

The first offensive line remained unchanged all week, with redshirt Craig Jenkins holding on to the right tackle job he earned last week. Calvin Wilson is also back on the first group at left tackle, though he is the lone starter without a uniform number. LG Anthony Strauder and RG Brian Anderson flanked C Royce Blackledge.

The second line had converted guard Chris Spencer at left tackle, with Michael Gates on the right end after being demoted one week into camp from the first unit. Roland Terry took over from gates in the third quarter. The interior three is more settled with C Johnny Carpenter, LG Dio Herrera, and RG Anthony Dunning. In fact during the fourth quarter Carpenter and Spencer got to run several series with the first offense.

The first defensive line made use of three-player rotations at tackles and ends. Powell and Robinson typically took the first snap of any series with Antonio Johnson switching in, usually for Robinson but sometimes for nose tackle Powell also. And Quinton Wesley was worked in at both ends of the D-line for either starter, Titus Brown or Michael Heard.

Hannibal is back at second-team end after a brief look at linebacker during the week. With Burns out walk-on end Austin Moore was busy on the second unit.

Since Culberson and Miller are still sidelined, veteran Brad Horton is the current #1 middle linebacker. SLB Gabe O'Neal and WLB Chaney are set on the first team ahead of Anthony Littlejohn and Carlton Rice respectively. Walk-on LBs Carvel Jones and Mark Brown got in a good number of snaps on the second squad.

David Heard's absence has given Adron Chambers the opportunity to move up to first-team at right cornerback, though he is the lone defensive starter not yet awarded a jersey number. Pegues has the other corner under control, as juco transfer Anthony Johnson lost his first-team white shirt for second-team blue Saturday.

The scrimmage opened with full-team kickoffs, both return and coverage. Threadgill, Humphries, and Anthony Johnson, were in deep return in that order. Adam Carlson kicked off, something Keith Andrews is still unable to do at the moment. On punting plays Pegues was the first return man, Conner his alternate. Pegues was on his way to a 70-yard touchdown return on one kick before punter Blake McAdams nailed him on the sideline. Hunter and Chambers were the first-team ‘gunners' in punt coverage, Humphries and Threadgill the seconds.

Carlson hit four field goals on either regular drives or in red-zone situations, with makes from 47, 43, 35, and 28 yards. Andrews was good from 32 and 23 yards.

Saturday was the 12th practice of spring and the second full scrimmage. There are three working days left in camp, and the Bulldogs will be in full-pads for all of them. State has scheduled regular practices on Tuesday and Thursday, with one more scrimmage set for Saturday as part of Super Bulldog Weekend. There won't be the same sort of situational work as in the first two scrimmages, Croom said. In fact it won't be all that much work, period.

"We'll divide up and have a little fun," he said. "We're not going to be out there very long, we'll let that clock run pretty much like last year. I don't put a whole lot of stock in spring games, I'm more interested in these practices than anything else. It's just to let the guys go out and show momma and the girlfriend what they've been doing this spring."

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